What does it take for a company to set and execute strategy in a complex and interdependent world?

Collaborative work across boundaries is increasingly seen as a requirement, but collaboration in most organizations isn’t a natural act. A shift in thinking — alongside a change in behaviors — is usually needed for genuinely collaborative work.

But history and experience suggest that accepted change management techniques aren’t up to the task of transforming the way we work.

What’s needed is a culture-change process that combines leadership strategy with business strategy. Changing culture is about changing minds.

We recommend an approach to organizational culture change based on 5 principles, 4 phases, and 3 types of leadership culture.

5 Principles of Organizational Culture Change

1.  Culture change is a guided, public-learning process. People can’t simply be “managed” into change. Culture change requires guides who become trusted partners, help steer change, and engage in a learning process.

Public learning includes truth-telling, revealing mistakes, admitting when you don’t have all the answers, and sharing confusion and even uncomfortable emotions. This is an inside-out experience of our imagination, emotions, and human spirit.

2. Executives do the change work first. Executives must lead by engagement and example in the transformation process. Senior leaders must own and model the new behaviors before engaging numerous key leaders in the change process.

3. Develop vertical capability. Dealing with the increased complexity across organizational boundaries and market systems requires maturity, developing from dependent to independent to interdependent leadership cultures. We call this the vertical framework for changing leadership culture. This allows people to grow increasingly capable of sophistication in the face of complexity.

4. Leadership culture changes by advancing beliefs and practices simultaneously. Best beliefs drive best practices drive best beliefs. Like an infinity loop, beliefs and practices are mutual and interdependent.

5. Sustainable culture change is a learn-as-you-go process embedded in the work of the organization. Leaders need to learn new beliefs by inventing and testing new ways of working together. Culture work is just as important as the organization’s focus on technical systems and processes. Culture development is the work, not a separate “training exercise.”

Based on these 5 principles, we’ve seen executives, leadership teams, and entire organizations “grow bigger minds,” creating an organizational culture capable of learning, changing, and succeeding in uncertain, complex times.

Changing Culture: 4 Phases, Not 4 Steps

Our approach is focused on growing bigger minds and fostering the thinking that allows for creative action in the face of complexity. Based on the above 5 principles, we use 4 broad, overlapping, and reinforcing phases:

  • Discovery learningdetermining willingness. What’s the feasibility of entering the culture-change process? This is a mutual learning phase between CCL (as facilitators) and the client (as change agents and organizational leadership). It begins with an assessment of the current level of leadership culture and a look at the capability required by the business strategy.
  • Players’ readinessdeveloping understanding. What are the long-term implications of integrating a new culture into the organization’s work? What is senior leadership’s ability to engage in the change process? It requires a commitment to participate in public learning.
  • Game board planningframing the change process. What does culture change look like? How does interdependent leadership play out in business and leadership strategies, the learning process, and organizational work targets? What are the beliefs and behaviors required? As senior leaders’ understanding of the change process grows, they’re better able to frame the change challenge and engage other leaders.
  • Playing the Gamebuilding capability. Once senior leadership has internalized the change work and discerned the way forward, they begin to spread the new culture into the broader organization. The same beliefs and practices that moved the leadership culture at the top are taught, practiced, and required elsewhere in the organization.

These 4 phases aren’t simple. Many traditional step-by-step change management methodologies regard human beings as things to be managed. Yet people aren’t things. They’re complex beings with minds and imaginations and beliefs. They have to engage and participate in order to learn and change.

That’s why this work isn’t for everyone. But if senior leadership is fully engaged, they become adept at their own collaborative learning. Then the senior team is able to immerse larger numbers of leaders from across the organization and develop toward a critical mass for enterprise-wide change.

Our goal is eventually to involve everyone in the organization in a learning process that creates trust, ownership, and increasing forms of interdependence.

Emerging Leadership Trends Report

3 Types of Leadership Culture

Organizations that grow from dependent to independent to interdependent leadership cultures become increasingly capable of creative action in the face of complexity.

  • Dependent: A form of leadership culture or mindset based in conformance or tradition.
  • Independent: A form of leadership culture or mindset based in heroic individual achievement.
  • Interdependent: A form of leadership culture or mindset based in the collaboration of otherwise independent leaders and groups.

To learn more about choosing the right leadership culture for your organization, download our white paper, Transforming Your Organization.


This article is adapted from a case study written by CCL’s John B. McGuire, Charles J. Palus, Toward Interdependent Leadership Culture: Transformation in KONE Americas, to appear in Lessons in Changing Culture (D. Warrick, J. Mueller, RossiSmith Academic Publishing).


One thought on “Changing Culture: 5 Principles for Interdependent Leadership

  1. Fine article, and most of it rings true to organizational cultural transformation in which I have had the opportunity to participate,if not facilitate, and to some extent lead.

    However, while you mention eventually focusing on trust-building, I have found creating, essentially earning a meaningful level of trust to be an essential pre-condition to successful culture change. As the culture of trust grows, beneficial change accelerates, along with growing trust.

    Leadership must go first, by being more trusting, often including taking reasoned risks. Trust once offered sincerely begets more trust.

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